LISS stands for low-intensity, steady-state training, and is as old as time. The original cardio, LISS often gets demoted in favor of HIIT (high-intensity interval training) and other forms of extreme workouts.
As always happens when something new pops up, there’s a huge pendulum shift away from the old tried-and-tested workout methods. However, including other cardio training methods and working out in different heart rate zones, is likely to make your workout routine more balanced and comprehensive.
What is LISS?
LISS (low-intensity, steady-state) is a form of cardiovascular training performed at a steady pace during which you are be able to talk comfortably over a sustained period, usually of at least 30 minutes.
Intensity. On a scale of 0-10, LISS is at an effort level of about a 5 (see RPE scale) and roughly between 60-75% of your maximum heart rate.
Aliases. Also known as long slow distance (LSD) training or continuous exercise training.
Examples of LISS. Hiking, brisk walking, slow run/ jogging, cycling or swimming at an easy pace.
LISS workouts are low-intensity, which means they take place below the point where lactate (the stuff associated with muscle burn and fatigue) starts to accumulate in the blood. Scientists call this point the first ventilatory threshold (or aerobic threshold). Once you go beyond this threshold breathing becomes faster and more labored, and you can no longer talk comfortably. However, stay under it, and you can exercise for a long time, carry on a normal conversation, and breathe comfortably.123
It’s worth pointing out that there are different ways of classifying exercise intensity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) would consider exercise at this level to be moderate-intensity exercise. It recommends adults aim for at least 150 to 300 minutes of exercise at this intensity per week, or the equivalent amount of high-intensity exercise.456
Benefits & Disadvantages of LISS
LISS is not the dead dinosaur that many people would have you believe – not by a long shot. But equally it’s not the only way to train.
LISS training has many benefits. Low-intensity, steady state training:
- Does not place a lot of stress on the body (workouts under an hour).
- Increases endurance.
- Improves the body’s ability to burn fat as fuel.7
- Is comfortable to perform.
- Does not require a high level of technical expertise.
- Is suitable for both beginner and advance exercisers.
- Allows you to be sociable, as you can still talk and exercise with friends.
For a deep dive into the benefits of LISS, check out this guide on long, slow distance training.
Low-intensity, steady-state training does have some disadvantages.
- LISS training tends to be long
- Workouts can feel laborious or boring.
- It may lead to injuries due to the repetitive nature of long workouts
While LISS trains your body to work at a steady pace for an extended period of time, improving endurance, it’s not great at improving speed and power. To do that you need high-intensity workouts such as HIIT, which involves alternating between short, hard bouts of exercise with periods of recovery.8
LISS Cardio vs HIIT
HIIT and LISS are at opposite ends of the training spectrum. Hard and short versus easy and long. Pushing it to the max versus keeping it relaxed.
LISS or HIIT? Which is better? The answer – it depends. And generally it isn’t a case of one or the other, but a combination of both. Here’s a guide for when to do LISS and how HIIT fits in the picture.
1 To build a base level of fitness
To get the most from or even attempt a hard workout like HIIT, you need to develop a reasonable base of aerobic fitness. Without base fitness you’ll struggle to recover between sets of high intensity exercise and you risk placing too much stress on your body. Furthermore, the duration, quality, and effectiveness of your HIIT workout is likely to be much lower.
Before starting a program of HIIT, spend 4 to 6 weeks developing your basic fitness so that, when it’s time to step on the gas and work hard, your body is properly prepared.
2 When you need an easy workout
Even the most fit cannot work at 100% all the time; attempting to do so is likely to end in fatigue, over training, illness or lost performance.9 And mentally, redlining it for weeks on end can be incredibly draining.
Because high-intensity exercise stresses the body, you can’t do it every day. Even high-intensity junkies need a break. Limit HIIT workouts to 2 – 3 per week, with at least 48 hours of recovery between.10
Enter LISS. Low-intensity workouts allow your body to recover, add variety, and reduce the risk of injury and overtraining. Including LISS workouts in your weekly training routine will enhance your training, so when it’s time to hammer the HIIT workout, you will be physically refreshed and mentally ready.
3 To build endurance
While HIIT develops speed, explosive fitness, and builds muscle, LISS increases endurance of the:
- Muscles. Develops type I slow twitch muscle fibers which are key for endurance, improves the body’s ability to get rid of lactate, and increases blood supply to the muscles.11121314
- Cardiovascular system. Develops the ability to take in, transport and utilize oxygen for long periods of time.15
- Mentally. Teaches you to maintain concentration and focus for extended periods.
All three are important for successful endurance sports like long distance running, cycling, or swimming.
4 To get miles in the bank
Whether you’re training to compete or just improve your performance, you need to build up your mileage base and get miles in the bank.
HIIT workouts are, by their very nature, short and sharp. This means that, for runners, cyclists, swimmers and rowers, not much distance is covered per workout.
As affective as HIIT is, if you’re training for a long distance events (e.g. half-marathon), you need to get plenty of miles under your belt to prepare your body for the demands of sustained exercise.
HIIT improves speed and power, which is great for sprints. But long distance activities like marathon running are more about base fitness than absolute VO2 max scores.
5 When you need a recovery workout
Use LISS as a recovery workout, such as the day after a high-intensity session or as part as a bigger recovery period.
When training for an event, most competitors train using something called periodization which basically means they vary their training to optimize performance, prevent overtraining, and prepare for competition.16
There are lots of different periodization models, but the common aspect of all these models is they involve periods of active recovery before or after very intense weeks of training. This is where LISS comes in.
Low-intensity, steady-state training can help maintain your fitness without exposing you to high amounts of stress. So if you are about to embark on a six-week block of intense sprint training, a week of easy jogging, cycling or swimming beforehand will ensure you are rested, but still fit and ready to start your next phase of training.
6 If you want a more meditative workout
HIIT workouts are fast and furious, and anything but relaxing. In contrast, steady state training can be very relaxing and even meditative.
As you run, cycle or swim at around 70% of your maximum heart rate, your mind can drift unfettered or you might choose to meditate on something specific like your breathing or the sound of your footfalls.
Steady-state training also lends itself well to reciting mantras like “every step I take makes me fitter and stronger”. There’s not much opportunity for meditation when doing hill sprints!
7 Weight loss
HIIT and LISS workouts can result in roughly the same amount of weight loss.171819 However, you have to exercise for much longer when doing LISS. According to the CDC, losing more than 5% of body weight may require at least 300 minutes of exercise at this intensity.20
The advantage of HIIT is that it is short, but still burns a lot of calories. This makes HIIT incredibly time efficient.21 And while exercise often increases appetite, HIIT is thought to decrease appetite post-workout.22 Furthermore, LISS cardio does not tend to build muscle (unless exercising on an incline or against resistance), while HIIT may help protect against the loss of muscle mass that usually happens during weight loss.232425
The reason LISS plays a key role in weight loss is that you can’t do HIIT every day, and you also need a have a high level of fitness to do an effective HIIT workout.26 Therefore, don’t think of HIIT as better than LISS for weight loss, but simply more time efficient.
Like HIIT, tempo training and Tabata, LISS is just one of many cardiovascular training methods you can use to take your fitness and performance to new heights. Use it but don’t overdo it and you’ll see massive progress from your workouts.
How to do LISS
To get the most from low-intensity, steady-state training, follow these guidelines.
Find Your Target Heart Rate
LISS is performed at an intensity that allows you to talk comfortably while exercising. This is called passing the “talk test“.
LISS Heart Rate Zone
During LISS training your heart rate should be roughly between 60-75% of your maximum heart rate. To turn these percentages into the actual heart rate you should exercise at, use this heart rate calculator.
Alternatively, you can do the math yourself. Calculate your maximum heart rate and stay between 60 to 75% of that number. You can do this by subtracting your age in years from 220 to estimate your maximum heart rate. Then multiply by 60% to determine to lower end of the zone and by 75% to determine the upper end. This represents your LISS heart rate zone.
The 10% Rule
To increase the difficulty of your steady state training, follow the 10% rule. Increase the length of your workouts by no more than 10% and increase your weekly training volume by no more than 10%. That way you will avoid developing overuse injuries from doing too much too soon.
Because steady state training is relatively low stress, it’s easy to fall into the trap of making it your go-to workout every time.
Instead, use LISS as a tool to achieve a specific outcome (e.g. to improve endurance, for recovery) rather than just something to do and try to include other types of workouts, if you can.
For example, if you’re a runner underpronation (insufficient inward roll of the foot), running shoes that have lost their support/ shock absorbency, or overly tight iliotibial bands can make this low stress workout detrimental to your performance and increase injury risk.
When it comes to LISS or HIIT, it’s not an either or situation. Work both ends of the spectrum, so you target all your muscle fibers, energy systems, and build good overall fitness and reduce the likelihood of injury and burnout.27
Tweak this as your goals change, and lean more into higher intensity workouts when you want to increase high-end fitness and LISS when you’re building your endurance.